Back in March, when it seemed like few people believed Toronto Blue Jays outfielder/third baseman Jose Bautista could even approach his lofty 54 home runs from 2010, I tried to argue in favor of the journeyman-turned-slugger. He had remade his swing from his Pittsburgh Pirates days, added valuable plate discipline and looked every bit legitimate to me. I predicted 40 home runs for "Joey Bats" this season, and frankly, considering no other American League player hit 40 homers last season, I felt he would lead the league.
Of course, even that prediction looks ridiculous today. Bautista might reach 40 home runs this month. He's already at 31 blasts, thanks in part to a recent stretch in which he has hammered seven home runs in the first 10 days of July, and it's to the point I'm almost surprised when a game goes by that he doesn't go yard. He is a fantasy monster, the best fantasy player in the game -- yes, better than Albert Pujols -- and not to go too obvious on everyone, I see a big second half for him across the board. In fact, I don't even see any argument against him.
After Bautista cleans up in Monday night's Home Run Derby -- and he will, because nobody's swing is better tailored for this event -- he's going to keep on slugging during the final 10 weeks. So, as has become an All-Star break ritual for me, let's predict the final home run totals for the eight gentlemen scheduled to compete in the derby. And as you'll see, I don't buy into any theories that swings get messed up in the Derby and contribute to poor second halves. These are human beings. Multiple factors can be blamed for inconsistent performance, and a glorified batting practice wouldn't rank at the top of the list.
Jose Bautista, 3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays: He's slugging .702. Think about that for a minute. Mark Teixeira, tied with Curtis Granderson for second in home runs at 25, is slugging .519. Even the great Pujols hasn't slugged better than .671 for a full season. With Bautista's approach, he won't slow down. He's better than last season, on pace for 130 walks, which these days is a ton, and could win the Triple Crown. It's not a crazy theory. Final home runs: 59. And he wins the batting title at .339 (but is second in RBIs). Enjoy!
David Ortiz, DH, Boston Red Sox: This is a top-100 player, folks, and with room to spare. He wasn't on draft day, but he also hasn't hit at this level consistently since 2007. Ortiz isn't striking out and isn't anemic versus left-handed pitching (.340 batting average!), and it's not called "clogging" your designated hitter/utility slot when it's the No. 23 hitter on the Player Rater for the season. Final home runs: 31. And he hits .290.
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Boston Red Sox: This is what a lefty hitter with a sweet, powerful swing can do when he escapes Petco Park. (Poor Anthony Rizzo.) Gonzalez is the best first baseman in fantasy right now. Invest with pleasure. Final home runs: 32. Of course, he'll also hit 50 doubles and knock in 133 runs.
Robinson Cano, 2B, New York Yankees: Ho hum, Cano is on pace for very similar statistics to last year, when he finished as fantasy's No. 8 hitter. We thank him for becoming a factor in stolen bases as well. Final home runs: 27. The only middle infielders that will hit more for the season are Rickie Weeks and Dan Uggla (surprise!).
Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers: Not that I predict a poor second half, but he will win neither the home run nor the RBI title in the NL. (Carlos Pena and Ryan Howard will, respectively.) Still, his career first-half/second-half splits are nearly identical. No worries here. Final home runs: 38. Pena hits 39.
Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers: Two years ago, would anyone have ever expected to see this guy in a home run contest? How about an All-Star Game? I'm past the point of expecting injury or any considerable statistical slowdown. Get over the lack of big-time base-stealing and enjoy the power. Final home runs: 28.
Matt Holliday, OF, St. Louis Cardinals: I wonder if Holliday could actually hit more home runs than he does; in an Ichiro Suzuki kind of way, he sacrifices power for batting average. Holliday's line drive swing doesn't seem conducive to big-time power, but when he launches one, it really carries. Holliday hit only 28 home runs in 2010. I don't think he tops that number. Final home runs: 26.
Matt Kemp, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: I invested in this guy before the season in multiple leagues, but still I'm surprised at what he's doing. Although he doesn't possess Bautista's plate discipline, it's awesome that Kemp should surpass his career high in walks before August. He hits at home and on the road and versus left-and-right-handers, and athough I don't think he gets his 40/40 season, it won't be for lack of trying. This is fantasy's second-best player in 2011. Final home runs: 36. And he steals 42 bases. It's a remarkable season.
By the way, although I'm aware that five of the past six Derby winners have batted left-handed, and that since 1995 no midseason home run leader has won the competition, I'm still going with Bautista Monday night. I'll certainly be watching!